Fitness training is by its nature physical. While that might seem obvious, the question of whether it is professional and ethical to touch your clients is a question to consider in light of your own circumstances and fitness business.
Touch is part of many professional occupations, including medicine, hairdressing, aesthetics, physical therapy, massage, and personal training. As with all occupations where touch is involved, it is all about consent.
Part of developing your professional persona and your fitness business is to develop professional boundaries. The relationship between fitness professionals and their clients should be beyond question at all times. Your relationship with your clients should be based on mutual respect, which means behaving appropriately whatever the situation.
In fundamental terms: you should ask before touching a client, explaining what part of their body you’d like to touch and what it is that you are showing them.
Each of those phases can be broken down further.
Consent (also referred to as permission) is essential prior to touching a client. Perceived inappropriate or unwanted touching of clients is especially troublesome in legal terms. Remember, that this isn’t how you perceive the situation, but how your client does.
Don’t assume. Ask questions of your client both during your informational and screening interviews, and during your training sessions: “Do you want me to spot you by touching or pulling the bar”? “Is it okay if I show you on your calf where you should be feeling the stretch” “Do you mind if I put your shoulders in the correct position for this exercise”? Don’t assume that consent given once is consent always. Ask your clients each and every time you think it is necessary to touch them during your training sessions. Some clients will agree to allowing you to touch them, while others will ask you not to. Respect your client’s wishes, and know that they do not have to agree to you touching them. It is your job as a professional to find an alternative.
The risks of touching a client without consent include being accused of assault, battery, or even sexual assault. Charges of sexual assault, even those without basis, can have devastating consequences on your personal training career, and your life, and the best defense against such claims is to behave in a professional manner with all clients.
Some within the fitness industry claim that you should explicitly include terms related to touch in service contracts. They claim that if a client sues the trainer, because he or she feels violated, and no witnesses are present, the trainer can refer to the terms of the contract. The reality is that assault or battery will be unlikely to be considered to be waived simply by virtue of a service contract – this is because if a client withdraws consent and a trainer continues to touch them in an unwanted manner the police and courts are unlikely to consider the actions of the trainer to be justified.
General Guidelines for touching clients
- Avoid touching clients unless it is essential for instruction. Use verbal cues and demonstrate on your own body in preference to touching the client.
- Inform clients about the purpose of requesting to touch them and find an alternative if the client objects.
- Stop any touching if it appears to make the client uncomfortable, even if they previously gave consent.
- Learn about professional touching techniques that fall within your scope of practice. For example, typically touching a client with the flat of your hand is better than fingertip touching. Contact should be firm and deliberate.
- Never touch a client in areas that are below or underneath clothing.
- Unless you are also trained as a massage therapist or a physical therapist, be very aware of the scope of your practice as a personal trainer and the limitations you should place on yourself.
- Be careful to ensure that any personal and social contact between yourself and your clients do not have an adverse impact on the trainer-client relationship. Specifically, if the client-trainer relationship turns romantic, the professional relationship should cease.
- Strictly avoid and discourage include any conversation or physical contact of a sexual nature.
- The gender of the client should not determine the kind of questions you ask in seeking consent.
- Trust your professional instincts when it comes to where you meet with clients
- Document client interaction and touch in your session notes. Write down where you touched your client and why.
- If you find yourself unable to maintain appropriate professional boundaries with a client (whether due to your actions or those of the client), the prudent course is to terminate the relationship and, perhaps, refer the client to another professional.
Appropriate touch can be part of your personal training practice, including in the course of spotting, stretching, correctly body position or alignment, and helping a client develop awareness of their own musculature. The key is to use clear communication and exercise sound judgment in making sure that you are behaving professionally.